Scientific Certainty and Religious Mystery

Tyler B. Davis on Peter J. Thuesen


n “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Frederick Douglass considers what it will take for the nation to do the impossible—that is, abolish the slave state and break from plantation America. To imagine abolition, Douglass turns to language of natural disaster. “For it is not light that is needed, but fire,” Douglass prophesies, “it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Destructive rupture is a necessary prerequisite for the creation of a different reality. Indeed, in other pre-Civil War writings, Douglass braids natural disaster motifs to theological visions of jubilee and deliverance.

It is not difficult to see why natural disaster phenomena find religious signification. From the primeval deluge in Genesis to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, religious meaning is often attributed to the calamitous effects of natural disasters which unsettle the status quo. That people respond to hurricanes by naming them adds a sense of religious primacy, as though making “the gods really present,” to borrow terms from Robert Orsi. Bringing scholarly attention to the fraught intersection of religion and the weather, Peter J. Thuesen’s book, Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather, investigates the religious status of tornadoes. While studies in comparative religion and cultural histories of climate have touched on this relationship, Tornado God is the first study to offer a sustained foray into the entanglement of religion and the weather in the American (US) context.

Throughout Tornado God, Thuesen retrieves an archive of tornado discourses in an effort to explore the entanglement of ideas about God and the weather. Thuesen elaborates how violent weather has inspired a range of religious reflection, but is he particularly interested in how Protestant interpretations of tornado phenomena help us understand American culture. (The interest in Protestantism means that while Native American religion and other traditions receive some comment in early chapters, readers hoping for a diverse and comprehensive treatment of religion and meteorological phenomena will be disappointed by the scope of Tornado God.)

The focus on white Protestant discourses and history enables a re-consideration of the old debate between science and religion. Thuesen’s story accents the familiar influence of John Calvin, whose theology furnished American Protestantism with a providential script banishing chance from the universe and, consequently, attributing the direct cause of natural events to the inscrutable will of God.

Displacing previous Christian conceptions of divine agency in the natural world in terms of secondary causality, the American providential script conceived of contingent—specifically, meteorological—phenomena as the strange and immediate workings of divine intervention. This inheritance explains why as settlers pushed westward and more frequently encountered tornadoes and other severe weather events on the Great Plains, they articulated the theological significance of these encounters in remarkably similar fashion—that is, as the will of God. Storms and other events of sudden climate change thus became the stage for an American faith seeking to make sense of providential suffering borne on the frontier.

Peter J. Thuesen. Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 312. $29.95.

ne of the central insights of Tornado God is its demonstration of how weather phenomena generated a significant body of Protestant discourses that, in turn, disciplined perceptions of the weather.

Attending to this imbrication of theology and environmental history, the contribution of Thuesen’s study can be registered by way of its parallel to T.D. Kendrick’s classic, The Lisbon Earthquake. As Kendrick recovered the how seismic phenomena spurred an intense providential discourse of “earthquake theology” in eighteenth-century England in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake-tsunami of 1755, so Thuesen recovers the parallel dynamics at play in the tornado theology pervading Protestant American culture. With Thuesen we come to see that American Protestant theology would not be what it is apart from the crucible of North American weather patterns.

Far from monopolizing explanations of the whirlwind, Protestant providentialism ran in competition with the discourses of science. One of the most interesting aspects of Tornado God is the complex arc of this aspect of its story.

Rather than a triumphal narrative bent toward the supersession of religion by modern science, Thuesen tells a story of ongoing tension and—surprisingly— the similarity between religion and science concerning explanations for violent weather. To be sure, modern scientific discourses achieved an authority over religious ones to explain the meaning of the whirlwind. Still, what is more important for Thuesen is the way these old rivals are both structured by a quest to overcome the mysterious. The competition to explain tornado events with certainty discloses an American penchant for mastery and evasion of mystery. From this perspective, discourses of science and providence are most distinctly American to the extent they display a common anxiety toward the mysterious (what Thuesen also refers to as “the numinous,” after Rudolf Otto) and develop strategies for its containment.

It is important to note that Thuesen’s focus on establishment Protestantism overlooks theological traditions on the periphery, which see the whirlwind differently. Recall, for example, that Douglass’s Fourth of July Speech does not lament but rather invites the volatile whirlwind in an effort to speak of the great jubilee of abolition. Alongisde Douglass, another example of a different way of theologizing the whirlwind is evident in the Mexican oral tradition of Rocksprings, Texas recently reconstructed in Monica Muñoz Martinez’s The Injustice Never Leaves You. According to this tradition, a tornado striking the borderlands town in 1927 was an event of justice, a divine retribution for the 1910 anti-Mexican lynching of migrant ranch worker, Antonio Rodríguez. The Rocksprings story exemplifies traditions that—like the plague narrative of Exodus—depict the whirlwind not as an occasion to shore up religious and scientific certainty about the workings of the natural world but as a divine and revelatory challenge to dominant relations of power which catalyzes creative possibilities for life.

Attending to such alternative traditions of the oppressed can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the interaction of between theological reflection and violent weather. This limitation in scope notwithstanding, Thuesen’s Tornado God is an important and creative study that will be of interest to students and scholars of American Protestantism as well as those in environmental history for its insightful examination of how American discourses of science and religion have aimed for some kind of certainty in the face of the mysterious.

Tyler B. Davis is a visiting instructor in the department of theology at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas and a 2022-2023 research fellow in the Crossroads Project based at Princeton University. He holds a PhD in theological studies from Baylor University and an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary. He has published work in the Journal of Africana Religions, Religions, and other academic and popular outlets